Grace’s mother fanned herself with the funeral program. Tammy saw it in her periphery. Her hand was sweaty, the hand which gripped her own. Tears and sweat made a clear, glistening mask, glittered in the corners of her mouth and in the pocket beneath her lower lip and her small, round chin. As for Tammy, her own tears burned her face, and she couldn’t see the funeral director, who couldn’t see her either because his face since the beginning had been firmly buried in the book, the good book, or in a funeral director’s catalogue which she guessed it was, noisy plastic sleeves protecting the brazen formulas of a professional’s grief-making marionette show. In the darkness Tammy thought of Grace, unbearable memories of their many indefinite and inconsequential moments together, not the whole thing at once, small jarring things that she had said or that had happened, coincidences that had made their way from her mind’s ocean to its rolling white crest. This front part of her mind, the open seaboard was also that image of herself that she bore secretly and looked out at once in a while to get an idea of where she’d been and what she was. And Grace was a big part of that. There was a method they had developed by accident, of being always in conversation with each other, things they said that signalled each other, were tribute to each other, even in class—it was a tone of voice, an affectation of normalcy, a slight cluelessness and colourlessness that made them seem the same as any other girl, raised no suspicion except when a laugh shot out from the desk at the other side of the class (they weren’t allowed to sit next to each other) and the class would turn, the teacher would lower his glasses, and shortly life would resume, but for that moment they had been in each other’s heads. At recess they were listening to records in the music room, records they kept in their lockers. They used to listen quietly, in the corner of the room, sitting cross-legged across from each other, ready to pack up and leave at any point, and one day they were caught and disciplined, but they appealed to Mrs Williams who was in charge of the music program and she gave them both written permission to use the music room, the record player and any record they felt like for the rest of the semester, recess or lunch, and from then on they listened a little more boldly. Mrs Williams seemed to understand in a way none of the other teachers did that their friendship was the kind that needed space alone, needed a square of darkness away from the other children, would not bear open scrutiny, was, without those brown curtains blocking the bleak Kentucky light in March, those dreadful and uneventful days before the spring break, a fragile, flaky thing, for she was her semblable, and like her own self amid watchful, questioning eyes—retracting, withdrawing, suffering anew that old crisis of ego, self like aether, self like cloud passing after rain, self like bugs scurrying to escape in the shadow of the rock removed—like her own self there was no adhesion in public—their friendship, tragically, had little to show for itself when one put a light to it. That’s why Tammy’s memories of Grace were all so exclusive, because they were protagonists in the same film, and the parts without her were establishing scenes, whatchamacallit—world building, not the meat, no not the good parts. The funeral director now made a motion to start the organ music, empirically intoned hymns, canticles, candles, all that stuff. A slideshow. Mrs Hauer wept louder. Her husband, Grace’s stepdad flagged the usher, who was leaning with one shoe crossing the other against a doorjamb and he left, returning with a tissue box. Mrs Hauer offered her some too and Tammy at last wiped the burning tears from her cheeks and blew her nose, loudly, blotting out the familiar call of “Fill us with the light of day!”—the very same they sung most Sundays.
At the Hauer’s house Tammy was glad to be away from the corpse, which she did not go up to see but waited patiently for everyone to shuffle past in a long line, like a big long conga line with frowning faces, looking discerningly into the face that didn’t look back, could not. Tammy didn’t know what a corpse looked like apart from in the movies and had thought about it about as much as any girl, here and there, was tempted to see Grace’s simply to be able to say that she had, whatever that meant. She thought she had caught a glimpse when she first came in to sit down, because all the family were at the front, and she was with the Hauer family, but it might have the been a fold of the white satin lining in the coffin, and that was what she hoped it was. She was proud to sit with the Hauers at the front of the room, and she was proud now to be the one entering the already half-filled living room with Grace’s mother, with David, Grace’s stepdad, but it made her a little sick when she realised it—that she felt pride. It was not appropriate or Christian. But it was like being the friend of a celebrity, which she never had been but could well imagine—except the reward was not people’s coveting, fantasising glances, but people’s sympathy, because you were a little dead too. The deadest was Grace, the dead girl (Gradston was such a town that the designation ‘dead girl’, ‘drowned boy’, ‘new-family’, ‘queer fella’ was applied at one’s leisure in ease of communication), then was Grace’s family, her brother, mother, step-dad, father, aunty, uncle and so on—they were partly dead as a result of her dying, that death, sudden, violent, gory, obscene, shouting, spilling, tear-salted slippery kisses on wrists slit, bath-wet, drowned face, wide eyes, hugging-screaming—that death was theirs too and one approached the family with the same uneasy, etherial reverence, with a fear that that mask like smoke of stupendous calm would break, like the body in the coffin, at command would sit straight and enunciate something, a secret maybe privy to the dead about them which she would bring back, and so the dead relatives, walking, speaking, might, with warrant in their supernatural state, treading the terminator line between absent and present, say something hidden, and spoil the whole show, whose aim was ceremony merely, not getting down to anything meaningful.
All this Tammy now thought as she stood with her paper plate at the buffet, rows of black plastic-draped foldout tables the church had leant the Hauers for the occasion, while eyes as eager for salmon dip and Reece’s Pieces as for a glimpse of her plain and virginal grief, her first taste of life’s hard and prodding prick, molested her from every angle.
were to move up it would mean that Tammy would have to move up too and stop scooping, spoon by spoon the hideous raisin rice, which she enjoyed doing because the continuous back-and-forth, scoop-and-plunk motion of her hand, the spoon, was lovely to her at that moment, regulating and narcotic.
Just then Conrad from her biology appeared beside her with a plate, traced a quick, casual ‘S’ in the gravy with a finger and sampled it.
“Not bad,” he said, almost to her, and began helping himself to it, big dribbling scoops, on top of which he added about five hushpuppies, then peas. Tammy resisted the urge to tell him off, she didn’t know why—she had missed her moment, had been caught off guard maybe. In any case she felt very self-conscious and had to struggle to review the table again and make a choice. The man with the shrimp had made his decision (yes to the shrimp, shelled) and the line was now held up entirely by her, which made her even madder at Conrad from biology.
When Tammy had loaded her plate (nothing fried, a thin slice of chess pie, plenty of the salad, all calculated to be fitting for a grieving best friend) she headed over to a corner of the room where one of Grace’s uncles was talking with some other guy and made like she was interested in the conversation but they moved on and she was left quite publicly alone. Conrad also was alone. In fact Tammy got the distinct sense that the same thing had just happened to him, except with a couple of the other reception-crashers, a girl and a guy that were popular, which he was not, and he was left there nodding to himself and forcing down a bite of a hushpuppy that apparently didn’t want to go down, and smacking his lips and tearing up as though he’d just tasted a pepper, and maybe he had. Tammy felt bad for him. He in his leather jacket and badly coiffed black hair. We are both, she wanted to say, trusting a future we don’t know. We are both walking into that very dark night. Neither of us asked for this.
Only something of that generous and sympathetic sentiment remained however when she reached Conrad at the other side of the room, and she found that she had nothing to say. Conrad attempted another hushpuppy, having acknowledged her effort in coming to him with a brief wink, as though perhaps it was what he had intended, her coming over, and Tammy gave a brief, professional smile, aware of people’s surreptitious glances in her direction.
“What a spread,” Conrad said.
“Well everyone put in a dish, so I guess it gets big pretty quick. Is your mom here?”
“Who invited you?”
“Grace’s mom, duh.”
“I wonder why she invited so many people from school,” Tammy wondered quietly, frowning, and immediately realised what an insensitive thing it was she had said. But Conrad just shrugged.
“Probably because it looks better.”
“That’s not a good thing to say.”
“I aim at the truth,” said Conrad.
“Why do people have to talk?” Tammy asked experimentally, sensing that he, this boy that makes weird, involuntary faces in class and once flicked the nub of a crayola into the back of her head and smiled back at her brazenly when she turned, might not disdain her for asking.
“It’s all we have,” he said. “It’s how we marry and have children. It’s how me make sense of chaos.”
“This is chaos,” said Tammy, looking about the room. She meant the way that everyone, each with their own inadequate sense of the ceremony taking place, its meaning and the expectations implicit, because it had not yet become such an ordinary thing as work or marital sex or school, seemed to be performing on different levels, all like players with their scenes mixed up.
“Yeah, chaos,” said Conrad. “What kind of a weird question is that anyway? Are you trying to be creepy?”
Tammy and Conrad turned—someone was playing the piano, an older relative, the opening notes to Joe Cocker’s You Are So Beautiful. But the woman was not fit to sing, she was crying, and everyone watched the scene unfold like a car crash. When she began to sing (wail) Conrad took Tammy by the hand, literally by the hand and led her outside by the front door, making the curt apologies necessary to cut a path away. On the front lawn Tammy, holding her plate of food, looked around, dumbstruck at the rate at which things had gone from excruciating to pretty okay. Then she looked at Conrad, soaking with long, deliberate dabs the last half a hushpuppy in gravy.
“I can’t believe you just did that.”
“I’ve been in a situation like that before, it’s not pretty,” he said, then, “I sure could go for a soda. Well, see ya.” Conrad crouched and placed the paper plate on the lawn, then walked away, licking his fingers and wiping them on the back pocket of his jeans.
Tammy watched the paper plate lift tentatively in the breeze, once, twice, then animate, begin to wheel, onto the driveway, down the white pavement beside the cars, trailing a brown gravy line all the way to the road. Only vaguely indignant now at the affront, the mess, which ordinarily would have her up in arms, Tammy reflected on the still radiating sense of being led the way she had been, being pulled in one direction without her permission, a thing she was not used to. She had had boyfriends, yes, but none that ever insisted on anything the way Conrad had insisted, against good manners, without fear of offending, she or the pianist, on getting the hell out of there. He had rescued her, she realised, because there was nothing that obligated him to take her with him, and he had squared off with the real possibility of being rejected, of her throwing away his hand. He had made a judgement about her on the spot and acted. She raised a hand to shield her eyes and watched his shimmering figure disappear at the street corner, and wondered why he wasn’t in with the cool kids, with Matthew and Rochelle and Carlos and that type. There was a certain feeling also of exposure that made her uncomfortable, like she was found out as a fraud, as fraudulent as he turning up for the “spread”, and by way of preparation to go back inside she reminded herself of her deep and genuine feelings for Grace, putting her plate into the trash and wiping her moist and nervous hands on her dress.